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Hard artery cafe? Dinner houses make fast food look good.

They're called "fern joints," "theme restaurants," "causal dinner houses," or "grills." You know--those trendy, upscale chains like Chili's, T.G.I. Friday's, Bennigan's Hard Rock Cafe, and Planet Hollywood. But do plants, rock music, or wood paneling mean meals that won't plug your arteries or broaden your belly?

Hold on to your fanny packs. Not only are typical dinner house dishes worse than Chinese or Italian, they make fast food look good. When we recently tested some of the most popular dishes served at the nation's top dinner house chains, we found that:

* An order of Stuffed Potato Skins has as much fat and saturated fat as a baked potato spiked with eight strips of bacon, eight pats of butter, and eight tablespoons of sour cream.

* An Oriental Chicken Salad has more fat than a foot-long Subway Cold Cut Sub washed down with a Dunkin' Donuts Bavarian Kreme donut.

* A Mushroom Cheeseburger with an order of Onions Rings has the fat of three Quarter Pounders and three large orders of fries from McDonald's

You may not be a fast food fan, but we bet you're no stranger to the popular dinner house chains--those noisy grills where the bubbly waiters and waitresses make sure you know their first names before your bottom hits the chair.

They may be great places for people-watching, but the sad truth is that, health-wise, you'd be better off at a fast food restaurant. And chances are you'd do better at a Chinese or Italian restaurant, where even some of the worst meals (we're talking lasagna or Kung Pao Chicken) are less damaging than the typical dinner house platters we tested. Only a Mexican restaurant serves up as much trouble for your blood vessels.

The bottom line: Odds are you won't get out a dinner house's door without having blown 1,000 calories...plus your entire day's limit of fat and artery-clogging fat. And that's if you skip the appetizer and dessert.

Of course, it's possible to get a healthy meal at a dinner house. Most offer salads with low-calorie dressing, baked potatoes, and grilled chicken or fish. And many, like Applebee's, Bennigan's, and Chili's have "healthy" or "lite" sections on their menus (see NAH, Dec. 1995, p. 11).

But judging by the mounds of burgers, Buffalo wings, and brownie sundaes that went whizzing by when we visited the restaurants, the "healthy" menu probably isn't where most people are looking.

Here's the rundown of the 20 appetizers, main dishes, and side dishes that we analyzed. We went to some of the largest upscale dinner chains: Applebee's, Bennigan's, Chart House, Chili's, T.G.I. Friday's, Grady's American Grill, Hard Rock Cafe, Houlihan's, Houston's, Marie Callender's, Planet Hollywood, Red Robin, and Ruby Tuesday. (Many other restaurants offer similar food.)

Within each category we've ranked the dishes from best to worst; that is, from least to most artery-clogging (saturated plus trans) fat.

(Trans fats are created when liquid oils are "partially hydrogenated" to form solid margarines or shortenings). See NAH, Sept. 1996, p.1.)

Appetizers

* Chili (16 grams of fat, 8 of them artery-clogging). A modest 1 1/2-cup serving eats up a quarter of your day's fat--and nearly half of your saturated fat. For one with half as much fat, head for Wendy's.

To Make It Better: Add bread and a salad with low-cal dressing and call it a meal.

* Buffalo Vyings (48 grams of fat, 16 of them artery-clogging). Eat an average 12-wing order and you'll use up three-quarters of your day's quota for total fat, saturated fat, and sodium...plus nearly a day's cholesterol. Dip until there's nothing left of the typical bleu cheese dressing and you'll get more damaging fat than if you downed an entire Boston Market Roasted Chicken, skin and all. Even splitting an order with a friend isn't smart. (Getting an enemy to eat half is another story.)

To Make it Better: You can't. Even with reduced-calorie dressing, these turkeys won't fly.

* Fried Mozzarella Sticks (51 grams of fat, 28 of them artery-clogging). Each modest-sized stick costs you 100 calories and as much fat as two strips of bacon. Your poor arteries won't be able to tell the difference between a typical nine-stick order and half a stick of butter.

To Make It Better: You can't.

* Stuffed Potat Skins (79 grams of fat, 40 of them artery-clogging).

Two-and-a-half pounds of Tater Tots. To your heart that's exactly what an eight-skin order looks like. Even half an order uses up a day's worth of artery-clogging fat and more than 500 calories. And that's with no sour cream. It's amazing what a little frying and some bacon and cheese can do.

To Make It Better: You can't.

Entrees & Platters

* Grilled Chicken (8 grams of fat, 3 of them artery-clogging). This is one of the lowest-fat restaurant foods we've ever analyzed. Order it with a plain baked potato with just a tablespoon of sour cream and the vegetable of the day to keep your 650-calorie dinner at only 14 grams of fat. But get it with a loaded baked potato or some fries and you quintuple the fat.

To Make It Better: No need to.

* Sirloin Steak (20 grams of fat, 10 of them artery-clogging).

Because most restaurants use one of the leanest cuts of beef (only round steak has less fat than sirloin), you'll use up "just" half a day's sat fat. And it's the only entree we tested that had less than 400 mg of sodium. Add a baked potato, a tablespoon of sour cream, and the vegetable of the day. That way you'll squeak by with a halfway decent meal. But go for the fries or a loaded baked potato and you're back in the fat.

To Make It Better: No need to.

* Chicken Caesar Salad with dressing (46 grams of fat, 11 of them artery-clogging). The lettuce and skinless chicken aren't to blame. While the croutons don't help, it's the full-fat dressing that does most of the damage here. Yet not one of the restaurants we visited offered a lower-fat Caesar dressing. Maybe we should send the chefs one of the many brands that you can pick up at any supermarket.

McDonald's offers a Lite Vinaigrette dressing on its Fajita Chicken Salad. You could eat five of them and still get less fat than you'd get from one dinner house Chicken Caesar Salad.

To Make It Better: Ask for your Caesar dressing on the side and use just a tablespoon or two.

* Bacon & Cheese Grilled Chicken Sandwich (30 grams of fat, 12 of them artery-clogging). Bacon, cheese, and mayonnaise can turn a healthy grilled chicken sandwich into a 12" Subway Steak & Cheese Sub. You'd have to eat eight McDonald's McGrilled Chicken sandwiches to get that much grease. Add french fries and the fat and sodium shoot up to nearly a day's worth...and the calories soar to a waist-busting 1,200. Low-fat mayo, reduced-fat cheese, and turkey bacon would cut the fat in half.

To Make It Better: Skip the mayo, bacon, and cheese and pile on the lettuce, tomato, onion, and mustard.

* Steak Fajitas (31 grams of fat, 12 of them artery-clogging). Chicken fajitas was the only dish we could recommend when we tested Mexican restaurant food in 1994. But that was without the fatty beans, sour cream, and guacamole.

Steak fajitas aren't in the same class. They've got a third more fat than the chicken variety, and twice as much artery-damaging fat. The sour cream, guacamole, and cheese boost the fat and salt to a day's worth...and the saturated fat to 1 1/2-days worth.

To Make It Better: Get chicken, shrimp, or vegetable fajitas instead. Top each with just a teaspoon of sour cream and as much salsa or pico de gallo as you want.

* Oriental Chicken Salad with dressing (49 grams of fat, 12 of them artery-clogging). Another healthy salad ruined by a fatty dressing. That's the only way to explain how a quarter pound of skinless chicken breast over a mound of romaine lettuce, red cabbage, carrots, and other salad fixings could end up with 750 calories and more than half a day's fat and sat fat.

To Make It Better: Get low-cal dressing on the side and use just a tablespoon or two. Don't eat the fried noodles that some chains serve. And avoid salads made with "crunchy" chicken. That just means "fried."

* Chicken Fingers (34 grams of fat, 13 of them artery-clogging). A typical five-finger order will do to your arteries about what a Big Mac plus a McDonald's Hot Fudge Sundae will. If you add the usual french fries, cole slaw, and honey mustard dipping sauce, you're looking at 1 1/2-days fat, more than a day's sodium, and more than 1,600 calories.

To Make It Better: You can't.

* Hamburger (36 grams of fat, 17 of them artery-clogging). You'd expect a Super Double Bacon Deluxe Whamm-o Cheeseburger to be bad. But a plain hamburger topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, and mustard? Sad but true. The dinner house burgers we tested had almost twice the fat of a McDonald's Quarter Pounder and nearly a full day's worth of artery-clogging fat.

Why? It's partly because they're bigger than their fast food cousins. With an order of fries, the calories reach 1,200 and the heart-damaging fat hits 1 1/2-days worth. Trade in the fries for onion rings and you can make it a two-day fix.

To Make It Better: Head to a chain like T.G.I. Friday's that serves Gardenburgers as part of its "Lite" menu.

* BBQ Baby Back Ribs (54 grams of fat, 21 of them artery-clogging). The meat from a pound of pork ribs doesn't sound like broiled flounder. But neither does it sound like a Denny's Grand-Slam-type breakfast (two eggs, two slices of bacon, two sausage links, and two pancakes).

Unfortunately, to your arteries it does. The french fries and cole slaw that typically come with the ribs turn your meal into two Grand-Slam-like platters. And the 1,500+ calories turn you into...never mind.

To Make It Better: You can't.

* Mushroom Cheeseburger (57 grams of fat, 28 of them artery-clogging). Even with nothing on the side it shoves 1 1/2-days' worth of artery-clogging fat into your blood vessels. Get it with onion rings and you'll double the damage. Your plate's 1,800 calories will contain the fat of five strips of bacon and four Dunkin' Donuts Chocolate Frosted Doughnuts crumbled over three slices of Domino's Hand Tossed Pepperoni Pizza, slurped down with two Dairy Queen Banana Splits and a Big Mac. Honest.

To Make It Better: Donate it to science.

Side Dishes & Desserts

* Vegetable of the Day (3 grams of fat, 1 of them artery-clogging). A cup of some combo of carrots, broccoli, zucchini, and yellow squash. Most of the restaurants add a little butter, margarine, or oil for flavor--too little to do much harm.

To Make It Better: No need to.

* Cole Slaw (14 grams of fat, 2 of them artery-clogging). Like the cole slaw at Boston Market, Wendy's, and other fast food outlets, it has more fat than you think.

To Make It Better: Get the vegetable of the day instead.

* French Fries (31 grams of fat, 12 of them artery-clogging). Say it ain't so. A typical two-cup side order squanders half a day's heart-damaging fat. The problem is that restaurants are still frying in partially hydrogenated shortening, which contains cholesterol-raising trans fat. The trans doubles the fries' ability to clog your arteries.

Add the fries to your dinner and it's like eating a Bacon & Cheese Grilled Chicken Sandwich with your meal.

To Make It Better: You can't

* Loaded Baked Potato (31 grams of fat, 19 of them artery-clogging). When it comes from the kitchen, it's already stuffed with butter, sour cream bacon bits, and cheese. "Loaded to Kill" would be a better name. Try a full day's worth of artery-clogging fat and more than 600 calories. From a baked potato, for heaven's sake.

To Make It Better: Order it "unloaded" and use just one tablespoon of sour cream.

* Onion Rings (64 grams of fat, 23 of them artery-clogging). A side dish? One order (that's 11 rings) has more fat than a Sirloin Steak Dinner, a Bacon & Cheese Grilled Chicken Sandwich, or an order of the BBQ Baby Back Ribs. The rings pack 900 calories and more artery-clogging fat than any of the entrees we tested except the Mushroom Cheeseburger.

To Make It Better: You can't.

* Fudge Brownie Sundae (57 grams of fat, 30 of them artery-clogging). It wasn't easy to find a dessert that's worse than a slice of The Cheesecake Factory's Original Cheesecake. Topping off your meal with the artery-clogging fat of a Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pepperoni Pizza plus two Dairy Queen Banana Splits is some feat.

To Make It Better: Several chains offer low-fat desserts, although we didn't test them. Why not try some fresh fruit or a simple sorbet. If enough people ask, dinner houses might actually start serving them.

RELATED ARTICLE: HOW WE GOT OUR NUMBERS

We bought takeout portions of 20 popular appetizers, entrees, and side dishes at 39 dinner houses in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. We made a composite out of twelve samples of each item (equal portions of 12 restaurants' hamburgers were mixed together, for example), and analyzed the composites for calories, fat, saturated fat, trans, fat, cholesterol, and sodium. We then calculated numbers for each platter by adding together the lab results for their a la carte components.

Juliann Goldman coordinated the study. Wendie Rosofsky helped purchase and process the food.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related chart; nutritional value of entrees at nationwide restaurants
Author:Schmidt, Stephen
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Oct 1, 1996
Words:2270
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